Whether accurately or not, lesbianism, and specifically lesbian-feminism, is commonly perceived as a remarkably vegan-friendly space. 1920s and 30s lesbians such as Radclyffe Hall and Mercedes de Acosta were strongly opposed to animal cruelty; Hall’s novel Adam’s Breed partially details her animal rights philosophy, and de Acosta apparently scolded her lover Greta Garbo for killing insects (Garbo apparently had the particularly flesh-creeping habit of finishing off spiders by holding them over her cigarette lighter – yuck!). Slightly more recent, dating back I suppose to the ’60s, is the cliché of the vegetarian lesbian peace campaigner who practises Wicca and has a house full of cats. And at present my local health food shop has a giant advertising board not only for animals rights protesters but for anticapitalists, peace campaigners and LGBT activists, with peace, lesbian-feminism and veg(etari)anism commonly being implicitly or explicitly connected.
Clichés are of course very misleading, and there is a big butch component to traditional “masculine” activities such as fox-hunting or joining the armed forces (cf. Garbo’s spider-burning), but lesbianism is one of very few environments where veganism is not only well-known but something of a convention. Which is why I was so very disappointed, upon reading the June 2004 edition of Curve magazine, to find that Julia Bloch considers it to have gone beyond convention and become outdated and tiresome.
Bloch was herself a vegan in her youth and went vegetarian at around the same time she came out of the closet; then, it seems, over the last few years she started eating meat again and had an affair with a man. She draws explicit parallels in her article between veg(etari)anism and lesbianism, although she is unable to clarify the connection. So far, so unpleasant: deciding to have affairs with men was her choice and affected nobody else; you certainly can’t say the same about killing and eating animals. But the really insulting aspect of this article is that she apparently considers the lapsing of vegan and lesbian-feminist political principles to be universal, inevitable, and furthermore, admirable.
It took me a long time to pinpoint what I found so offensive about the article; after a while it dawned on me that that was because Bloch herself is so vague. Here, for example, is the paragraph “explaining” why she started eating meat again:
But times have changed for me, and for lots of dykes my age. I hitched a ride on the great butch-femme renaissance of the late 20th century and relaxed my attitudes towards porn. I started to work within and without the system for social change. I realized our “lesbian nation” has expanded to include multiple cultures and backgrounds, and our definitions of “lesbian” have expanded beyond the nuclear model to queer and genderqueer and beyond. Some of our best friends are men; some of our lovers are, too, even if we don’t call ourselves bisexual.
I hope Curve‘s regular readers can understand what this is all about, because I certainly can’t. The entire feature seems to be a package of aged stereotypes about veganism and, moreover, they are implied rather than stated. In a description of her first few years of veganism, Bloch says that she “felt righteous…[and] sneered at [meat-eaters].” A fairly clear picture here: people turn vegan, apparently, because they are supercilious prigs who like to feel superior due to having the moral high ground. She goes on, doing a quick vox-pop of the reasons lesbians might especially be drawn to veganism: “there is something ‘queer’ about it in its outsiderness”…”resistance to having limits or conventions placed upon me”…”I wanted to be ‘transgressive’.” Another old cliché unearthed: adolescent girls become vegans as a rebellion against authority. Wow, never heard that one before.
She implies that women will jump on any bandwagon, and that vegans need to grow up
The teenage-girl-as-sulky-brat suggestion is particularly infuriating in its sexism. It is well known that veg(etari)anism is disproportionately common among young girls, and this has been used as a stick to hit them with: they’re just trying to be outrageous, it’s a fad, give them a few years and they’ll grow out of it: precisely the same sentiments that are so often uttered about teenage attempts to leave the closet. Bloch is doing a major disservice to both vegans and women: she implies that women will jump on any bandwagon, and that vegans need to grow up.
Just as offensive are her subtle hints that veganism is intrinsically racist and class-discriminatory: “I realized our ‘lesbian nation’ has expanded to include multiple cultures and backgrounds”. Arguably, of course, it always did; and so what? This is surely irrelevant, unless, of course, she is reiterating the old saw that veganism is only for middle-class white women. Yes, veganism is under-represented among the working classes; it seems rather odd, however, to draw the conclusion from this that the middle classes ought to stop being vegan: might we not just as well argue that we ought to make more of an effort to reach the working classes? As for the ethnicity argument, I suppose that might wash in America, which has a mostly African-American minority population; over here, given Britain’s enormous Asian population (apparently the highest in Europe), it seems plain bizarre. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’i and Buddhists all have cultural or religious prohibitions against eating either certain or all types of meat. One of the best vegan meals I ever ate was at a conference in Leeds of the working-class Asian women’s group, Nari Ekta (Women United). I didn’t even have to book in advance; I sheepishly muttered “vegan” and was immediately presented with an enormous helping of delicious daal. I remain especially awed by their hospitality given that I was the only white woman in the audience; if I’d been them I’d have thrown me out.
But by far the most creepy aspect Bloch’s article, in my view, is its assertion that lesbianism itself (by which I mean, women being exclusively attracted to women) is undesirable and boring. Veganism and lesbianism are connected, she says; I agree, and I think both are good. Bloch appears to consider that both are bad – somewhat astonishing in a lesbian magazine! Just to recap, she says: “our definitions of ‘lesbian’ have expanded beyond the nuclear model to queer and genderqueer and beyond. Some of our best friends are men; some of our lovers are, too, even if we don’t call ourselves bisexual.”
Feminism and veganism are lumped together as extremist, old hat, laughable, boring.
Having sex with men and still calling yourself a lesbian? Sounds like “anti-gay” to me: Tom Robinson appearing in the Independent in 1998 to say “nobody ever stopped being a homosexual by sleeping with a member of the opposite sex”. Many postmodernists took this view in the ’90s, but I’ve never thought of it as anything but verbicide: the words gay and lesbian to me (and, I’d have thought, most other people) mean “exclusively attracted to people of the same sex”. I define myself in exclusionary terms: I’m a vegan because I don’t eat animal products, and a dyke because I don’t fancy men. If you want a word that means “anything that isn’t straight”, well, there’s another word for that, queer. Terry Sanderson, so far as I am concerned, summed this up in the Mediawatch column of the Gay Times of May 1998: “Well, pardon me for being so old-fashioned, but some of us really are gay. Not politically gay. Not experimentally gay. Just gay. And suddenly we are invited to feel guilty about it all over again…this new orthodoxy is being widely promoted by [people who] imagine that homosexuality is dead, and a homosexual orientation is, like communism, nothing more than a political construct that’s had its day.”
The comparison to communism is one I see as crucial to Bloch’s article: she sees veganism as past it. The theory presumably is: Communism is ridiculous nowadays, but it’s OK to be vaguely left wing; it’s ludicrous to be a vegan or exclusively lesbian, although it’s OK (and cute) to be bisexual and vegetarian. Feminism and veganism are lumped along with Communism as extremist, old hat, laughable, boring.
The white heroine, Jacky, is first seen eating a “gardenburger” and drinking Red Zinger herbal tea, both semiotically marked as hyperhealthy but dull and therefore feminist food choices.
The above quote is taken from a linguistics anthology, and Anna Livia is a professor of French who conducts research into linguistics. It is depressing, but not surprising, that an expert on language should judge (probably correctly) that any mention of vegetarian food is an attempt by the author to mark Jacky as boring, and also that dullness is quintessentially feminist.
In denying themselves meat, men and porn they seen as narrow-minded, sexually-repressed puritans
It’s rather remarkable, upon reflection, that veganism is seen as both a teenage rebellion and as boring. Surely for something to constitute a rebellion it has to be interesting? Not if you slot it into the “worthy but dull” category (although that in itself is something of a puzzling, since surely anything that’s admirable ought to be interesting), along with communism, feminism and now, apparently, gayness. Bloch’s allegory of her opposition to pornography is of interest here: she campaigned against while she was a vegan; later on, “I relaxed my attitudes towards porn”. I expect most readers will be entirely too familiar with the theory that vegans and lesbian-feminists are too straitlaced: that in denying themselves meat, men and porn they are narrow-minded puritans and probably sexually repressed (!!! – presumably soya sausages are supposed to symbolise something else). Meat, porn and sex with men here represent “liberty” as opposed to cruel restriction: another argument I’ve heard far too many times, presented in its purest form in the Gay Times of December 2002. The editors had evidently decided to present fox-hunting to its readers as a debate, so on page 46 was an advert from League Against Cruel Sports depicting a dead fox with its guts hanging out, and on page 98 one from the Countryside Alliance the featured a cheery gay couple stating they were both fox-hunters. Quote: “All we want is to be part of an equal society free from prejudice and intolerance. Don’t people who hunt deserve that too?”
Yeah, right: yet another example of the right wing hijacking the language of the left, failing to make any distinction between intolerance aimed at (a) adults having consensual sex and (b) losers who get kicks out of smashing small animals to bits. No doubt the Paedophile Information Exchange or Wonderland or whatever they’re called now are still out there claiming it is unfair to discriminate against adults who have sex with children; still accusing feminists of being killjoys and spoilsports who just need to loosen up and have sex more often.
It might seem bizarre that any feminist, beset from all sides with accusations of outdated repression, could slam veganism as too restrictive and boring; sadly, that’s the line some feminists take. The feature “Chewing it Over” in the Summer 1999 issue of Trouble & Strife was a depressing example of the type: four feminists, only two of whom were even vegetarians, disparaged vegetarianism on the grounds that “it’s only quite recently that even being vegetarian in this country has not consigned you to a life of tedious and boring food” (your opinion, your loss) and “it was an enormous amount of work trying to make sure that what we ate was a good enough diet and I got really tired and fed up with it” (my heart bleeds). Even more bizarrely, they made no reference to the fact that in the very next article was a quote from nineteenth-century feminist Frances Power Cobbe explicitly linking the cruelty of wife-beating to the cruelty of vivisection; they concluded their discussion by insisting there was no particular connection between animal rights and feminism.
Women “grow out of” lesbianism and vegetarianism at much the same time, she claims
Whether there is a connection between the two is difficult to say and, in my view, irrelevant. The article in Trouble & Strife put my back up because of its tone of: prove to us that killing animals is a feminist issue – if you can’t, there’s no need for us to take it seriously. I can see no specific link between feminism and anti-racism: that does not give feminists the green light to hate ethnic minorities. Killing millions of animals is appalling however it is interpreted.
The conclusion of the Trouble & Strife sceptics, who saw animal abuse as unconnected to feminism and therefore not their problem, is a great improvement on Bloch’s: the last few paragraphs of her article are the most offensive of the lot. Women “become” lesbians, she decides, for the same sort of reasons they become vegans, and they therefore “grow out of” lesbianism and vegetarianism at much the same time: sexuality as far as she is concerned is of course just a lifestyle choice. “I had an affair with a boy a while back. It was superficial, brief and kind of boring. But did I feel guilty? Sure – just as guilty as I did when I snuck a bite of ginger chicken when my roommates weren’t looking.” In other words, not very. “Loathe as I am [sic] to use the phrase ‘new millennium’, part of being queer now is relaxing the demands we put on ourselves to be rigid around our identities, and with good timing; people hovering around 30 typically begin to loosen up around how to live according to your principles [sic].”
Loathe is the word: this is loathsome. A meat-eater telling vegans to eat meat is nothing new, but a self-styled “lesbian” telling lesbians to have sex with men….?! Look at the words she uses to describe vegans: rigid, righteous, sneering, drastic. Contrast the language she uses to describe her recidivism: changed, mellowed, relaxed, loosened up. She doesn’t see herself as having taken a step backwards; she considers that she’s grown up. So now, apparently, it’s not just vegans who are immature, but lesbians; teenagers, we are expected to believe, go through an unfortunate political phase, during which they are rigid and uptight and refuse to have sex with men or drink milk. But hey, don’t worry, ladies, this is only a passing phase; once they’re over the age of 30 they’ll start eating chicken and going out with fellas, even if they don’t enjoy it. This is the part that really does my head in: “It was superficial, brief, and kind of boring”. THEN WHY DO IT? If “growing up” means having sex with men when you don’t even want to, just to prove how “genderqueer” you are, then I’ll remain a sulky teenager forever, thanks.
Grown up? Get real: she’s given in. She couldn’t keep up the ethical commitment, or perhaps she was embarrassed by being connected to something as old-fashioned as vegetarianism; and unlike the crew at Trouble & Strife, she isn’t even prepared to be upfront about it. The T&S’s women in discussion admitted “I got really tired and fed up with [vegetarianism]” and “I should be vegan; there’s no question I should be vegan but it’s too hard”. Bloch’s closing sentences are, “In my heart I am still a vegetarian. And a lesbian.” And a hypocrite?
The Vegan Society, incidentally, was formed in 1944 by Donald Watson, who is still alive and a vegan at the age of 93. He turned vegetarian in 1924. OK, a lesbian he certainly ain’t, but get this: he’s been a vegetarian for 80 years. Chew on that.